Leading article: Welcome but fragile, this ceasefire must be only a start

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The Independent Online

It must be hoped that the ceasefire announced in Gaza, first by Israel, and then – a few hours and several rockets later – by Hamas leaders, marks the beginning of the end of the latest bloodletting. In three weeks of armed conflict, as many as 1,300 Palestinians have died and several thousand have been injured – many of them civilians and children as well as combatants. The war has left widespread damage to Gaza's already inadequate infrastructure and untold human suffering in its wake. Israel lost 13 soldiers.

However anyone looks at it, this was an unequal war. Israel insists that the high number of civilian deaths in Gaza resulted from Hamas tactics that deliberately put civilians in harm's way. It is also true, however, that the population density in Gaza and the lack of emergency provision made a high casualty toll inevitable, once military hostilities had begun.

It is why, however great the provocation from Hamas and other fighters, and however urgent a political issue security on the southern flank had become in the run-up to Israel's election, this was a conflict that always cried out for a negotiated solution. And the outlines of a settlement were clear, almost before the first Israeli bombs fell. The Hamas authorities had to guarantee a stop to the rockets fired into Israel. Israel had to open the crossing points that had kept Gazans effectively imprisoned. And a way had to be found of stopping the smuggling of weapons and their components into Gaza – a lucrative business for some that provided much of the arsenal Hamas was able to draw on. That meant blocking or destroying the tunnels running beneath Gaza's border with Egypt.

In declaring the ceasefire unilaterally, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, said that Israel's goals had been achieved "and even more". Affirming that the armed forces would withdraw – though not when – he also insisted that, without resort to arms, Israel would not have achieved the international guarantees of its security vis-a-vis Gaza that were being finalised yesterday at Sharm el-Sheikh. If the military wing of Hamas has, in fact, been disabled, Mr Olmert will also be able to bow out next month, having salvaged his reputation as a war leader after the troubled Lebanon operation of 2006.

What is beyond doubt is that these three weeks of harrowing combat have changed the situation on the ground decisively in Israel's favour just before the new US President takes office on Tuesday. More positively, they have pushed the Middle East up the international agenda. The impressive turn-out presided over by President Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday – which included the Palestinian President, and leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey and Jordan – was clearly designed to banish the impression of international hesitation and division that followed the start of Israel's air campaign three weeks ago and establish a new sense of common purpose.

That is good – or at least an improvement on what went before. The need for a lasting Middle East settlement has again been demonstrated. Europe, which has the potential to make a greater contribution to relief and security efforts than it has often done, is involved again. But the cost to Israel's international reputation, which had been enhanced by its 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, is likely to have been high, especially in Arab countries. The trust essential to starting negotiations on any future, comprehensive, settlement remains as elusive as ever.